Nicole Kelp- Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology

Nicole Kelp, PhD Assistant Professor – Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology
Basic Sciences Teaching Faculty – CU School of Medicine at CSU

CMB Faculty Spotlight – Nicole Kelp

Nicole Kelp is a new CMB affiliate faculty member in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology. Her research is at the intersection of science communication and science education, with focuses on training STEM students in science communication skills as well as empowering non-scientists to understand and dialogue about science.

Describe your career path.

I had always had an interest in cancer biology and thus entered a 7-year BS-to-PhD program in the School of Molecular Biosciences at Washington State University. I was able to work in diverse labs in protein biochemistry and DNA repair but ended up settling in a reproductive biology lab, where I did my dissertation research in progesterone signaling pathways during miscarriages and uterine/breast cancer. I was also able to do a research internship at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as part of the Pediatric Oncology Education program.

However, alongside this bench science research, I knew I was passionate about teaching and education. During my fourth year in the BS-to-PhD program I also worked as a research assistant for a faculty member studying the process of metacognition in undergraduate biology students. When I graduated with my PhD, I stayed at Washington State as instructional faculty. I taught microbiology and genetics, helped develop and teach our department’s curriculum for science communication courses, and collaborated with a colleague doing research on active learning techniques in general biology, microbiology, and biochemistry courses.

Here at CSU, I have two main focuses. My teaching is in the new CU School of Medicine at CSU branch, where I am helping with curriculum development and will serve as course director for General Principles, Hematology, Endocrinology, and Reproduction courses. My research is focused on science communication education, and I am passionate about developing interdisciplinary collaborations and bridging the gap between science researchers and communication researchers and the gap between researchers and practitioners in fields like science communication and science education.

What made you choose academic over other career paths?

I love teaching. In fact, I originally thought I wanted my career to only involve teaching and not research. However, now that I have transitioned from traditional bench research to science communication/education research, I am able to focus my research on improving educational outcomes both in and out of the classroom. It is exciting for both my teaching and research roles to contribute to my passion of helping people learn.

What are the big questions you want to answer through research?

Solving the scientific problems facing our world requires collaboration of diverse people from diverse disciplines to develop creative solutions. This “dialogue model” of science communication recognizes that people with various backgrounds and skills are critical members of societal conversations about science. In order to foster these science communication networks and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in science communication, we are exploring several projects at the intersection of science communication and science education. Some research questions include: How should scientists communicate about the uncertainties inherent in their data, especially during emerging scientific issues? How should we train STEM students at various levels – undergraduate, graduate, medical, etc – in the skills necessary to communicate about science in various forms with diverse audiences? And how can we empower and train non-scientists to engage in productive dialogue about science?

What does your research team look like?

I just started at CSU in July 2020 – so we are doing everything virtually right now! I have a great team of 1 masters in public health student and 5 undergraduate students who work as hourly research assistants.

How do you achieve work/life balance?

I have a husband and a toddler son, so spending time with my family is important to me. Additionally, I try to be active every day – doing HIIT, yoga, running, hiking, or biking. We love exploring the natural beauty of Colorado! Finally, I minored in music during college and have recently returned to playing the piano more. Having these interests outside of my teaching and research is so critical for health and fresh perspectives. I also look forward to getting more involved in the Fort Collins community once the COVID pandemic is over.

Who is your scientific hero and why?

Dr. Virginia Apgar, who developed the APGAR (Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration) score for evaluating newborns. Personally, she overcame opposition as a female surgeon and first woman to become a full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Medically, her work helped save the lives of countless infants. Later in life, she pursued a masters in public health and devoted her time to education and fundraising to prevent birth defects. With my research background in female reproductive biology and pregnancy, my current research in science/health communication and education, my work in the CSU medical school branch, and my identity as a woman in science, I appreciate Dr. Apgar on many levels!

What do you know now that you wish you had known in graduate school?

It’s okay to explore diverse options. While some people may have perfectly linear paths, staying in the same field from undergrad to grad school to postdoc to faculty position, most people don’t have such a path. I explored diverse research opportunities in cell and molecular biology before and during my PhD. Then, I transitioned into science education/science communication research. I have also transitioned from a teaching focus in undergraduate education to medical education. Because of these transitions, I am consistently learning new things, connecting with new colleagues, and finding my niches for making an impact at CSU and in the community. Give yourself the freedom to explore, don’t compare your path to others, and don’t be overwhelmed by new things!

What do you enjoy most about mentoring students?

I consider mentorship holistic. While I mentor students in our lab’s research, I also want to help them move towards whatever goals they have in life. I also enjoy learning from students – I don’t have the monopoly on good ideas!

What do you look for in a graduate student?

Graduate students who are willing to step out of their comfort zones are ideal! Especially for STEM students transitioning into science communication/science education work, it’s important for students to be willing to read new literature, learn new research techniques, and be able to think in create and interdisciplinary ways.

Are you currently looking for students?

Yes! It would be great to have a graduate student who works solely in my lab, or a graduate student who is co-advised by me and another faculty member who does traditional bench research.